The most common understanding of prayer is the daily prescribed ritual prayer that has specific times and text of communication between human and God. Examples: our Namaz, Du’a, the Lord’s Prayer in Christianity, and the Qaddish in Judaism. These ritual prescribed prayers, both in terms of time and content, are sometimes referred to as canonical prayers. They are compulsory and mandatory for all believers. They remind believers of the doctrines and traditions of their respective faith.
In the Qur’an, the Arabic term Salat technically denotes the act of bowing to the Divine in submission, devotion, and adoration. While Salat has come to be generally applied as the term for ritual prayer of today, the Holy Qur’an provides a much broader understanding of the term. Salat or Namaz is referred to as prayer in general and encompasses various forms of spontaneous, individual, and communal prayer including Du’a, which is a prayer of supplication (communication with Deity) or as opposed to invocation (calling for a spirit).
The Meaning and Definition of Prayer
Let’s reflect on prayer as an act of submission and its relationship with our actions. Prayer is action, a text, and an act of communication with Allah – as it involves physical gestures, mental attitudes, moods, motivations, and intentions. Further, prayer could have a formal and defined structure, or it could be informal.
It is important to attend communal prayers and fulfill our ritual prayers. They also deepen our understanding of the broader dimensions of prayer.
The concept of niyyah, or intention, is very significant in our efforts to understand the meaning of prayer. Whilst prayer is a required duty that needs to be fulfilled, one’s intention is a necessary prerequisite for prayer. In a tradition, the Prophet (pbuh) has said: “Verily, actions shall be judged solely with reference to their intentions, and a man is entitled only to that which he intends.” Closely related to this is the necessity of concentration and understanding the meaning of prayer-words. The Prophet is reported to have said: “It is not a sixth nor a tenth of man’s devotion which is acceptable to God, but only such portion thereof as he offers with understanding and true devotional spirit”.
Once we have understood the wider definition of Prayer, we are taken beyond the specific notion of prayer to an all-embracing notion of prayer which includes all acts that constitute prayers and consequently brings us closer to Allah.
Diversity and Expressions of Prayer
In Islam the concept of prayer is situated within the broader understanding of Worship. Worship in Islam incorporates all efforts of a human’s life to draw closer to the Divine. Within this context, it is expressed through various forms of prayer ranging from formal ritualistic prayers to personal and intimate expressions of faith and piety, including, recitation of Qur’anic Ayat, Hamd, Na’t, Mathnavi, Nasheed, Ginans and Qasidas. Worship also includes engaging in a variety of rituals and specific Tariqah practices such as the ones performed within the Jamatkhana prayer-room.
Performance of these acts serves to continually remind us about God’s existence, our relationship to Him and above all how to bind us to the ultimate reality. Based on this definition, worship also encompasses (on a personal level) pious actions such as the writing of calligraphy, preaching sermons, ethical or pious acts such as feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, being compassionate, sharing, and caring. And on an institutional level too. (AKDN.ORG) Thus these ethical acts also reflect the broader definition of worship and prayers.
The Arabic word Salah or Salat (plural Salawat) is derived from the root word “sa-la-wa” meaning to pray or worship. It broadly means prayer, blessing, or grace of God, reflecting the idea of supplication. In principle, the term Salat denotes the act of bowing to the Divine in submission, devotion, and adoration. While Salat, also represented by the Persian word Namaz, has come to generally be applied as a term used for the ritual prayer of today, a much broader understanding can be seen in the Qur’an. This reflects Salat in the generic sense as prayer or blessings and grace of God and as well as communication with God. Thus, Salat is referred to as prayer in general; representing a variety of forms of prayers as explained earlier. This generic sense of Salat is reflected in many Verses of the Qur’an, of which some examples are:
“It is He (God) Who confers the Salat (blessings) over you, and His angels, that He may bring you forth from the darkness into the light” (33:43) – here the term Salat reflects the blessing of Allah.
“O my Lord, make me establish Salat… And O Lord, accept my prayer.” (14:40)- We also see this range of meaning reflected in Hazrat Ebrahim’s prayer.
Free Personal Prayers
The Imam of-the-Time has distinguished between exoteric Tariqahs (traditions), which emphasize prescribed duties, and esoteric Tariqahs believe in personal and individual forms of prayers which are known as ‘free prayers’ or prayers without specific forms, as opposed to ritual prayers. Free prayer is spontaneous prayer – also called Du’a or supplication. Free prayer of the heart, which is an intimate conversation with the Beloved, consists of individual prayers as well as repetition of prayer formulas, phrases, which are either specific words or Qur’anic verses – generally given by Murshids (Asma ul-Husna).
We offer prayers in the form of a petition, invocation of names, giving thanks for fulfillment of our wishes/ desires, seeking blessings, asking for forgiveness, and offering individual or collective Du’a or supplication to communicate with the Divine for various reasons such as help, rizq (food for bodily nourishment) alleviating difficulties, spiritual success, and enlightenment, etc.
One of the distinctive esoteric forms of worship is Zikr, which means remembrance or recollection of God. In Ismaili Muslim Tariqah, the Imam of-the-Time has guided us on Zikr-e-ilahi – remembrance of Allah, enabling us to embark upon our personal journey in search of spiritual happiness, success, and enlightenment. In general, all Muslims, whether they follow a specific esoteric tradition or not, perform ritual and free prayer. This prayer can be both personal and collective. There are several Qur’anic verses which emphasize the importance of constant Zikr. For example, Holy Qur’an says:
“…and recollect God often” (33:41) and,
“…the recollection of God makes a heart calm.” (13:28).
It is important to recognize that there are different reasons and purposes for which prayers are offered and these are reflected in the different types of prayers, such as:
* Petition: Asking God to fulfill a certain wish or desire.
* Invocation: Invoking the Name of God before starting an activity, such as ‘Bismillah’ or saying “Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim”.
* Thanksgiving: Remembering the Almighty for success or the fulfillment of a wish or a desire. Muslims say “Shukran lillah wal-hamdu lillah” on many occasions, including after a meal, or when an inquiry about one’s health is made.
* Benediction or blessing: Seeking of blessings either formally or informally.
* Forgiveness: We repent, give commitment not to repeat our sins again, and seek forgiveness for them.
* Supplication or Du’a: This is a wide category encompassing almost all of the categories listed above. It is broadly defined as the prayer that is invoked freely, spontaneously, on a personal or collective level, and for communication between human and God.
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